On Preconceptions

She grasped a stick of honey in her fingers, carefully, as if handling a precious possession. “Here,” she said. “I want you to have it.” Five years old, she stood in front of me, serious, dark hair brushing her shoulders. She didn’t have that much to spare, her family didn’t have a lot to get by on, and I had just swiped their SNAP-EBT food stamp card through the register. Startled, slightly taken aback, I protested. No use. Even though it was a special treat for her, she pushed two more across the table, leaving sticky fingerprints in the heat of the afternoon; a girl after my own heart, stubborn until the end.  Finally, I threw up my hands in acquiescence, laughing, watching a smile light up her face as her mom nodded in approval.

Sometimes I hear other people criticize the idea of governmental assistance programs. “They just don’t want to work hard,” they say. “People like that just don’t try.”

People like what? It’s dangerous to draw boundaries, lines drawn in the sand. The divisions in our country right now come from separating human beings into us versus them. They are different people. They don’t come from the same background. They can’t possibly understand our beliefs because we are entities divided.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s politics or religion or race. Us versus them is never okay because it creates a yawning divide that gets harder and harder to cross as the years go by. It’s easy to hold inviolate convictions when there isn’t any data to the contrary, and right now, it’s often easier to shut that other side out entirely. We can follow whomever we choose on Instagram and Twitter and Facebook, meticulously select our news sources, and converse only with those who will bolster our existing paradigms.

Thinking through the implications of such a mindset, us versus them became a part of my choice to take a bridge year. We inhabit a globalized, cosmopolitan landscape, but right now, our world is splitting into segments. Rather than communicate with others to solve the unsolvable, negotiate effective peace agreements, and take measures to regulate our environmental impact, we’re shutting ourselves in and convincing ourselves that it’s okay because our way is the right way.

So yes, I believe I have a responsibility. I believe that as a student who is going to live and work and love and adventure in an interconnected world, I have a responsibility to both open my mindset up to different views and ways of life and to show others that America is not any one preconception, but a million different stories contained in one country; a responsibility to push back against divisions, one-dimensional views, and separation based on the us versus them mentality.

Never consciously did I separate that girl with the honey sticks into a category, but it had happened anyways. Once she walked away, head held high, I felt ashamed because the gift had taken me so much by surprise. Did I really think acts of kindness were relegated to the rich and privileged? No. I would never say, or think that. Yet that preconception was the basis behind my surprise; I assumed a five-year old on supplemental assistance would hold onto what she had more dearly because she didn’t take it for granted. Instead, precisely because she didn’t take it for granted, she gave more freely.

Preconceptions are easiest to hold onto when they are never challenged.  Black is easiest when it’s always black, and white when it’s always white, because the other gradations are a whole heck of a lot harder to navigate. But once we meet somebody who falls outside a certain mold, that mentality starts to crack at the edges. Sometimes it takes a random stranger to shake up one’s belief system; a single interaction forcing one to examine uncomfortable, unconscious beliefs; a five year old girl offering honey sticks in exchange for nothing. That was what it took for me to grasp the full meaning of generosity, realizing the most meaningful part of having something is trading it for what matters, whether that’s a smile or a feeling of happiness or making your parents proud. It doesn’t depend on the amount of money you have. It doesn’t rely on what type of background you came from, or from your level of education, or anything else people automatically stereotype.

// It isn’t, and never will be, us versus them. //

This is why I choose to take a Global Citizen Year 🙂

 elise marie